Followers Of Faiths Are Returning To Places Of Worship — And Holding Onto Lessons From The Pandemic

Akilah Bixler St. Andrew United Methodist Church Highlands Ranch
Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
St. Andrew United Methodist Church in Highlands Ranch, Friday, June 19, 2020.

Just days before Colorado declared a state-wide lockdown due to COVID-19, Charanjeet Kaur and her family visited the Gurudwara they usually attended. Her husband and sons sat outside the Sikh worship center, but she stayed inside for the service. 

Then everything changed. 

“When this lockdown started, for one month, I was like, OK. Yeah. I am with my family, with my kids. And we are having time for each other, but by that time the kids were bored because they couldn't go to school, and I was also feeling sad,” she said. “The time was really very tough.” 

More than a year later, Kaur and her family haven’t been back to a temple to worship in person. Kaur’s cancer is in remission, and she remains cautious about her and her family's health. 

Courtesy of Charanjeet Kaur
From left, Harcharan Singh, Merharjeet Singh, Charanjeet Kaur and Harsimran Singh pose for a family photo. The family has not visited its place of worship for more than a year.

So they’ll wait a little longer before returning to in-person services. They’re vaccinated, but they feel better about waiting just a bit longer. Plus, their Gurudwara won’t resume in-person services until June 20. 

With the mask mandate lifted and more people getting vaccinated every day, many — across faiths — are returning to places of worship after a year of isolation and longing to be in the presence of their communities.  

“I went from speaking to a congregation of people where audience interaction with my sermon was powerful, engaging, funny, and all those things to speaking into a camera,” said Rev. Norm Bouchard, at the Center for Spiritual Living in Colorado Springs. “When we opened back up the very first Sunday where we had 40 people in, I could barely hold the emotions back.”

Missing in-person communion

Bouchard missed hearing people’s stories about their lives and getting to shake hands or hug them. He has colon cancer and, like Kaur, had to take precautions to protect his health and the health of his congregants. The Center went remote for six-months before opening for limited capacity services with social distancing and masks. 

“We were really quite well prepared, even though we knew nothing about the virus coming down, we've been asking a question about the spiritual community of the 21st century: What is it going to look like?” he said. “And we knew that it was gonna be more than brick and mortar. And we had a feeling that it was a combination of a virtual community and also a brick and mortar.” 

The Center already had a growing online presence with people tuning into services from around the world. But for Bouchard, virtual services just can’t beat in-person worship.

“I'm an extrovert, and I like being around people. I think that, for me, part of the whole piece of the church is having that community and people who believe the same things that you do, that you have so much in common with, who are so open and welcoming and loving,” said Liz Clement, who attends the Center. “As much as I can, I would prefer to have that in person. I feel like it's just a different level for me.”

As much as Clement prefers in-person services, she likes the flexibility of attending remotely if she’s traveling, which she plans to do a lot this summer. 

Courtesy of Liz Clement
Liz Clement says being with other people who share her faith is something she enjoys most about in-person worship services.

Holding onto lessons from the pandemic

Creating more welcoming, user-friendly and thoughtful online worship spaces is something Paul Michalec, chair of the board of congregational care at Lakewood UCC, has been thinking about a lot. 

“The first couple months it was survival sort of, we know we need to do something and we know we can do it well, so let's just get in there and see what happens,” he said. “Then sort of the mid part of that time span of being in the virtual world, we started to really refine our steps. And think a little bit more creatively into how do we bring in more of an aesthetic feel, how do we use the virtual component as a way to actually broaden out the congregation's participation in worship?” 

Courtesy of Paul Michalec
Paul Michalec of Lakewood UCC says the church has considered how virtual worship and gathering can help the church members participation.

Thanks to the help of a tech-savvy member of the worship team, Michalec and others on the various committees formed to help make decisions about the church were able to improve the online worship experience. They’ve considered what parts of a service are more private and less suited to airing on the web, like personal confessionals in smaller groups, and if there are copyright issues with singing songs and airing the videos online. 

Lakewood UCC has two outdoor services planned for over the summer and has a tentative reopening date for in person services on August 1. 

“I'm looking forward to actually being physically present in a sacred space that has embodied those years of worship in it,” Michalec said. “When you walk into a sanctuary, at least for me, or any sort of sacred place, there's that sense of the spirit being present. And as much as I can create somewhat of a sacred space at my kitchen table with a candle and attentiveness to the entry into worship, it doesn't have that embodied historical deep sense of this is a sacred place.”